2008 in Review.

It took me forever, but I saw pretty much all of the 2008 films I was going to see. So my lists! Exciting!!

Bottom 5 of 2008
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5. Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Eric Brevig)

In a way, I feel bad for damning this film as it is completely harmless in every way. It doesn’t try to offend anyone, and is obviously quite cheaply made entertainment meant to appeal to the family audience. That being said, even in 3-D, the film lacks anything of interest and not taking risks comes back to bite the film in the ass, as it seems to try to hard to be clever and amusing within an extremely tight confine of harmless expectations. In a year of some great family films, it’s a shame that this one will forgiven for just being “fun”… when it isn’t. The film is so bland it’s criminal, and some might argue with this low placement considering I’ve seen crap like What Happens in Vegas, but even that piece of tripe, has a moment or two glowing moments, which this film does not.

4. Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Andrew Adamson)

Another family film, I feel like the soulless liberal monster eating away at the values of the every day fundamentalist conservative. Though I can only imagine how terrible the quality of the films made solely for the Christian demographic are, Prince Caspian is more than just a weak film that doesn’t appeal to my own personal values, but fails as a film. It feels rushed, and undeveloped. The film was obviously cashing on the success of the Lion/Witch/wardrobe, as well as the fact that the actors were aging quickly to hash out this ill-advised sequel. It lacks any nuance, or for that matter any tension. I don’t personally enjoy action sequences as a rule, but they are particularly badly done in this film. I don’t even really understand why a film addressed to children needs to be filled with violence, advocating military ideals. To top it all of, the film ends with a godawful pop tune from one of the many Disney stars. It was a cheap ploy, obvious pandering to an audience, a final grab for the audience’s money. Even if the song was good, anything in that style is just out of place in a film of this kind. An insulting ending to an already embarrassing and boring film.

3. Prom Night (Nelson McCormick)

I saw this film in the hopes that it would be so bad it would be good. It seemed rife with opportunity, but I forgot one key ingredient needed for a cheesy wonderful horror film… it can’t be rated PG-13. Though I don’t need gore or boobs to enjoy a film, let alone a horror (in fact, most of my horror are very low on gore… slasher films tend to be at the very bottom of my preferred in the genre), in a film this badly written, it would have helped. It tries to strive for all the sex and blood, without ever really including it. Nary a boob or a drop of blood, and a lot of crappy melodrama. The film’s real weak point is the lack of a film’s menace. The actor chosen is a something of a male model, and he has the charisma of a rock. He poses no real threat, and isn’t even fun. Probably the worst villain I’ve ever seen in a film of this type.

2. Rambo (Sylvester Stallone)

I should preface this review by saying I am clearly not the intended audience for this kind of film. I don’t revel in blood baths and high death counts. I find the concept to be honestly kind of immoral and disconcerting, it disturbs me to the very core. What is especially terrible about this film though, is how it attempts to justify it’s violence through exploitation. The film begins with a long extended preface that portrays the brutality of a war torn Burma. The film attempts to show the true cruelty of war and how it extends far beyond just one army against another, but it’s all so shallow, and eventually contradictory. Rambo has vowed not to interfere, but can’t help himself when the war lord also happens to be a pedophile and the blood bath begins. The first half of the film works so hard to try and show how terrible and cruel violence is, while the second half glorifies it. It also supports not only vigilantism, but the idea of the American hero, able to interfere in any and all foreign conflicts to save the “people” and restore a sense of order. This film is not only poorly made and generally uninteresting, but downright insulting to all my values as a human being.

1. Bangkok Dangerous (Oxide Pang Chun & Danny Pang)

It’s difficult to describe how bad this film is without having you watch it. This is a film that is poorly made in every conceivable way, from Nicholas Cage’s hair plugs to the non-sensical editing style. I have to say, even Cage’s often bad acting that can be a source for entertainment is reduced to almost nothing, as he plays a character who barely talks. The film does have a few moments of unintentional hilarity, but it’s not enough to sustain the film, or even recommend it. I knew this film would be terrible, the moment you have the schizoid editing, and suddenly you have the worst voice over in the history of bad voice overs. I really don’t know what else to add about this one, because it was just one of the very worst films I’ve ever seen in every way.

5 Favourite Male Performances

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Michael Fassbender in Hunger

Extremely potent portrait of revolution, Fassbender excels especially in his physical transformation from a strong young man to a frail shadow of humanity. The strength part of his performance though, comes in an extended take with an un-dogmatic priest.

Heath Ledger in the Dark Knight

Yup… Ledger did more than steal the Dark Knight, he legitimized it. Surprising and filled with a great deal of nuance and humour, it’s difficult to take your eyes off of him during the course of the film. Each scene he isn’t in, leaves you yearning for more.

Benicio del Toro in Che

Tracing decades of one of the most influential men of the 20th century, Benicio del Toro reveals a driven intellectual with some problematic moral ambiguities. He is at his best in silence, thinking and contemplating… it’s not always easy for an actor to add so much weight to those moments of rest.

Mickey Rourke in the Wrestler

Not much more I can say that hasn’t been said about this performance, it’s natural and rich in emotion. It’s simply one of the most surprising and evocative performances of the year.

Josh Brolin in Milk

Josh Brolin is as strong an antagonist as Sean Penn is a protagonist. He is no villain though, more a man with a strong set of ideals that are challenged by both a disillusionment with a political system, and a challenge to his own identity.

5 Favourite Female Performances

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Naomi Watts in Funny Games

I can’t say I fully appreciate the almost contradictory moral preaching of Haneke’s American re-imagining of his 1997 film, but I can certainly appreciate Naomi Watt’s incredible performance in the lead role. She manages to balance both the artificiality needed in the opening scenes, as well as the grim brutality present when the torture begins.

Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy

Quiet and affecting, Williams proves to be one of the strongest actors of her generation in this understated film about poverty. Her performance is stripped back of showy moments, and rings incredibly true. Just beautiful.

Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married

Possibly the breakout performance of the year, though Hathaway has already performed in “serious” films like Brokeback Mountain, it’s in Rachel Getting Married that she reveals her true talents. There are many standout scenes in this film, but for me, it’s her describing play by play the day she lost her brother that killed me. Probably the best monologue of the year.

Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky

I’ve already said so much about this performance, it works on many levels, and I personally think not only is comedy much more difficult than “seriousness” (though I wouldn’t call Happy-go-lucky as comedy per say…) performing “happy” is more difficult than “sad”. It’s not always easy to reveal conflict with a person who is apparently very satisfied and cheery, and Hawkins succeeds.

Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One In

Unfortunately it seems that the young actors from Let the Right One In have been all but forgotten in the discussion of great performances of the year. Though the actor who is Oscar is nearly as deserving, it must be said that Lina adds the appropriate emotional and intelligent weight to a character who is several decades old, and is both morally and genderally (?) ambiguous.

Favourite Films

20. Man on Wire (James Marsh)

What is really beautiful about this film, is how such Petit chooses to inspire the world with his passion. His decision to cross the two Towers of the WTC seemed as much a personal challenge, but an opportunity to bring a little beauty to the world. Recounting the day, his friends are literally in tears, still awed by the beauty Petit was able to bring to their lives. James March saw past the curious behaviour of his star, to a man with a heart, and how his art was able to make the world a little different. One can really feel how powerful this was for the people who were able to be there and see what happened, and though the film audience is only able to feel just a fraction of the event through the footage, it’s enough to understand that this isn’t the act of a madman, but a real artist.

19. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)

My favourite sequence in this film, is probably Button’s interaction with Tilda Swinton. Though always in love with Daisy, it’s clear that he learned what he knows about relationships with his interaction with this older woman he meets in Russia. Their relationship begins as something platonic, his energy instilling a sorta a youthful chasteness in their first interactions, that eventually leads to curious lust and some time of perfect happiness. Of course the relationship could not last, but because of his appearance he is forced into a situation he can’t quite grasp… though it would eventually shape him as he grew emotionally/intellectuallyolder in a way most of us could only hope for. Swinton is a joy to watch, and adds more weight to these scenes than they might have had with another actress. I think as things are, this becomes the key sequence in terms of his eventual coupling with the love of his life, Daisy.

18. Revanche (Götz Spielmann)

At the very least, Revanche may be the most visually spectacular film I’ve seen this year. Each frame is painted with incredible care, and at first it seemed gratuitous considering the content of the story, an unnecessary flourish of the filmmaker, but upon some reflection, it seemed like an appropriate reflection of the character’s moods and the film’s themes. This is a story of love, and revenge, but it avoids all the typical trappings of these ideas. Though the film is stunning to look at, it never glamorizes the situation that they find themselves in. There is nothing glamorous or desirable about their existence, the only thing that holds them together are these strong emotions, and for me at least, for better or worse they are reflected in the strong visual style. It’s a film about humanity, about people who are forced to make drastic decisions. There is a huge conflict between happiness and duty, and how the line between the self and the world around us is so often blurred by subjectivity and the unpredictable.

17. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller)

The first Apatow film that I can say I really loved, I thought it was brisk, tender, funny and very sweet. It still suffers from a somewhat bloated running time, but because of the balance between the comic moments, and those of more real emotion it doesn’t quite feel so long as the other films. I don’t really have much else to say about this, when I saw it, I was prepared to dislike it. The last Apatow produced film I had seen, Knocked Up, I found ridiculously un-funny. Though Peter’s heartbreak is obviously treated for laughs, his nice guy persona is genuinely appealing and you do feel for him beyond his function for comedy. Jason Segel’s writing really caters to his strengths in that way, but I was especially impressed by Rachel’s character. In many ways she was idealized, but on the other hand she was allowed a lot of strength and emotional range. When Peter really discovers how much he feels for her under unorthodox circumstances, her rejection of him feels extremely real, and it doesn’t cater to male wish fulfillment. The film still ends on an upbeat note, in terms of emotional payback and the laughs.

16. The Duchess (Saul Dibb)

Through the trials of the Duchess of Devonshire, we are given a very sincere image of a time of great inequality and hypocrisy. Women are allowed even less freedom than slaves, as one politician attempts to stop the trade slaving, without even considering that a woman should even be allowed to vote. That particular comparison seems harsh, as slavery is a “worse” crime than the inability to vote, but the servitude a wife must undergo for her husband is no different than that of a slave for a master. Even the logic remains the same, as once racist slave owners would insist that it was for the better of these people because they were not as bright and unable to fend for themselves, to have someone to take care of them, do the husbands and men justify their treatment of women. In a very early scene, the Duke of Devonshire observes that women’s clothing is far too complex, and with a surprising answer the Duchess replies it’s their sole means of expression. It’s clear he doesn’t’t understand, or even register her meaning.. which makes what follows all the more uncomfortable.

The film has some pretty rudimentary ways of showing distance between husband and wife, but they are no less successful. The film, on a whole, is restrained and though emotional, never veers into melodrama. The film, though pointing obvious in it’s criticism of patriarchal values, features on a whole very sympathetic men. Even the husband is allowed a great deal of humanity, in spite of his cruelty and a horrific act of violence. The cinematography is quite beautiful, almost an expectation one gets from a period piece, but there is a sort of calmness one doesn’t’t usually get from such an unseasoned filmmaker. He is not afraid to hold a shot of a face or a hallway, to let silence dominate, and the viewer have time to fully appreciate the thoughts and emotions of each of the characters. The ending is hit or miss, trying to evoke a similar end as The New World, fails stylistically, though I appreciate them ending on a sort of whimper, instead of a grandiose display of emotion or action.

15. The Dark Knight (Chritopher Nolan)

I’m sure I don’t need to explain why the film’s strength and quality lies in the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker. He is better than anyone could have ever hoped, and he single handily raises the film to the status that it has achieved. He even makes those scenes that feel intellectually forced bearable, because you can really feel that his character is a force. I think though, again, a character symbolic of a sort of trouble making anarchist (this doesn’t’t seem quite right, because as a game player, The Joker does have “rules” , though he is the only one who orchestrates or understands them) he succeeds far more as a character because he is so enigmatic as a personality. It’s something that Bale’s performance lacks, and it drags down the overall picture. When centered on the world of the Joker, Nolan’s filmmaking is far more free. I appreciate the sort of non-linearity and risk taking visuals when portraying this faction of the story. It reminds me of the rigidity that plagues the genre, but is still enough for me to be able to envision the possibility of a superhero film without these “important” ideas and “important” plot. We’re just not quite there yet.

14. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)

Cute

13. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)

Wendy and Lucy paints a bleak portrait of American life, one that has more closed doors than open ones. Without a home or a phone, there is no way for Wendy to get a job, and as a lone friend (a security guard muses), without a job it’s impossible to find a job. Amidst a current economic crisis, it’s not difficult to imagine how many lost souls like Wendy are wandering the country looking for work. Reaching to Alaska as an opportunity because they “need people”. The film is more than just about economic hardships, but the emotional and psychological effects of being a societal outcast. Time and time again, Wendy finds herself meeting a wall, or a closed door. There is little empathy for people like her, and even when there is some tenderness, it hardly softens the blow of her hopelessness.

It’s difficult to express how lonely and unhappy Wendy must be, especially once she loses Lucy, her only real friend. There is no judgement from her dog, and Lucy’s dependence makes Wendy feel needed in a world that seems to want her to just disappear. There are some puzzling interactions, notably that with a young man who insists she needs to be punished for shop-lifting, to be made an example of. The manager seems reluctant, feeling the desperation of the situation, but the young man is adamant that she shouldn’t’t be allowed to walk away scot-free. His insistence is cold and angry, and his actions almost violent. One wonders why he is so adamant about enforcing justice. Later than night, young people laugh about her sleeping in a car, they themselves wandering through the darkness.

12. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)

This is a film that supports my own love for comedy, as I often believe our own tragedy and the scope of the human experience is best expressed by a clown rather than a dramatist. The film is as dark as it is funny, and it’s through laughter that we’re brought into the lives and experiences of the characters. It’s never easy to gain sympathy and develop character through the use of witty repartee, as well as physical comedy. So much is revealed about Ray’s disdain for the arts and sight-seeing, and his eventual excitement over filmmaking. First it establishes his background, someone who is middle class, if not lower… and maybe didn’t do well in school. His love for cinema also shows a sort of desire for escape, it’s a cheap way to see the world and experience things you might not have.

I think, his own attraction for his “career” might have stemmed from the movies, though I suppose that’s something of a jump. It’s clear though, he wasn’t prepared for the consequences of his work, not emotionally or psychologically. The film is about that, his intense sense of loss and emptiness. I think the bridge between generations between himself and Ken is not convenient or just a coincidence, it’s supposed to reveal something about Ray’s generation. There is something that happened, or didn’t happen between that time, and honestly I’m not sure what it is. Obviously Ken’s calmness and acceptance has come with time, he is not impervious to pain or conscious, but he can live his life. I think there is something more at work, and perhaps it’s just an unwillingness on Ray’s part to accept death. Though he is a killer, he doesn’t quite understand it as a part of his world, and even his own willingness to commit suicide… seems like he is in denial of the nature of life itself.

11. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)

The artist is allowed to see the world through a lens. It’s not even limited to filmmakers or photographers, it’s the confines of the frame that often allow the artist to look deeper into their lives, and stand at a distance when confronted with something horrific. Waltz with Bashir is one filmmaker’s journey to unravel a part of his past that he had forgotten, or more likely, blocked out by means of art. He interviews friends and other soldiers, slowly piecing together that period of his life.

A largely autobiographical film, as well as fitting very much into the format of documentary, the film’s animation allows an exploration of the subjective nature of dream and memory. How it bends and intertwines with fantasy and hallucination, and in a way, reflects a “truer” understanding of our lives. Far from a gimmick, it’s used as a relevant tool in exploring state of mind. It taps into the power of the memory and how traumatizing events will manifest themselves in your subconscious.

The mind is equipped to prevent us from entering dark moments, to hide away what may disturb or prevent us from living, but there is no real means of escape. We are able to look at the world around us from the outside in cases like this, just as the story of the amateur photographer reveals. He was able to deal with the events of war, because he interpreted what was happening around him as a sort of set to take photos. He reached a breaking point though, when confronted with dying horses. It was this event that drew him back into the world, and lead to a breakdown. It could have been anything, and at anytime… for him, it was these dying Arabians who were suffering for no reason. As he said, they had done nothing wrong.

10. Rachel Getting Married (Demme)

I can’t think of anything to see :/ It made me cry

9. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)

There has been much discussion and debate about Poppy, the protagonist of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Annoying? Insane? Loveable? Even insincere. Perhaps this is what is so thrilling about the film, it’s not easy to peg, and different people will walk away with something different. It’s one of the few 2008 films I’ve seen twice, and I think my appreciation for it only grew the second time around. You start to see how, though far from perfect, Poppy is trying to live her life in a way to make the world a better place. It makes her happy, and at heart, she isn’t hurting anyone.

There is an underlying sadness in her actions though, I think the conversation Poppy has with her sister, about being happy. Poppy says she is, and I’m willing to believe her… but at the same time, there is that quiver of doubt in her voice, it’s not an easy answer, and it’s not black and white either. I think it’s one moment, among a few others, where there is an unconscious revelation that Poppy is not always acting on pure impulse but is being very deliberate in her actions as a means of helping others. Also speaking to her friend Zoe, she’s told that she can’t make everyone happy, to which she answers, “There’s no harm in trying that Zoe, is there?”.

The most interesting segments of the film, are no doubt, Poppy’s interactions with her driving instructor Scott. These segments really add a new layer to Poppy’s behaviour, she has moments of recklessness and doesn’t always know when to stop. It does push Scott over the edge, but I think it’s less her carelessness than his grown affection for her. He fell for her, possibly because she wasn’t afraid or him, or that she seemed to treat him as a comrade in on a joke… though he wasn’t playing the game. What pushes him over the edge is not her recklessness, it’s an excuse for him being angry at her being in a relationship. Though not completely absolved, I think her reaction to him when he does “lose” it, shows that she can be a mature adult when needed. She reacts in a way that’s responsible, even considerate giving the circumstances.

I think, it also shows how she is forever growing and changing, like any human being… or even more accurately like any “philosophy”. She cannot be rigid, and has to acknowledge her mistakes. I think from Scott, she took away what a damaged childhood can do to a person. She first sees one of her students punching another in the yard, and just walks away. Then she talks to Scott about his own school experience, learning some painful truths… and when she sees it happen again, she reaches out.

Looking at Poppy, she has a philosophy of life that I think would not be bad for more people to adopt. When it comes down to it, she’s friendly and caring… she only tries to make other people’s day a little brighter. Her methods are sometimes questionable, but like any of us, she is imperfect. I think looking at her interactions in that first scene with the man in the bookshop. She is not being rude or invasive, it’s him who is being that way… and that happens a few times. Her behaviour is “out there”, according to our societal standards, especially in major cities… but I don’t think it’s wrong.

8. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood)

Is it terrible I didn’t even notice all the supposed acting? Maybe I have a filter that protects me from badness, or it’s my affinity for b-movies and horror… but it hardly prevented me from enjoying this interesting and entertaining film from Clint Eastwood. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a huge fan of Eastwood’s directorial efforts, at their best I think they’re very laid back and simple (in the good sense of the word) stories of morality, at their worst they’re overwrought emotional dramas that are as uninteresting as they are forgettable.

Though about cultural and generational clashes, at it’s heart Gran Torino is a film about authority and community. Walt is a bitter old war veteran who just lost his wife, he is now living alone, though his children are pressuring him to move into a retirement home and his neighbours could only wish the same. His frustrates emanate partially from the fact that he is a bitter person in general, but a huge amount of it also comes from a sense of entitlement. As an older person I think he truly believes that people should not only respect him, but adhere to his cultural and moral ideals. This is problematic, as without affording respect, its’ unreasonable to expect it. His interactions especially with the Priest are dismissive, though it is evident very quickly why… for Walt, it’s a matter of age and experience, nothing more.

There is also though, a lack of understanding on the other side. His children and grandchildren don’t begin to try and understand his point of view or experience. They don’t express any real thoughtfulness or interest in his life. They don’t even attempt to make any meaningful connections, though again, it’s just as easy to understand why not.

Walt’s interactions with his Hmong neighbours begin on a shaky foot, he obviously has little respect for them because he is a not-so-subtle racist. His creative racism and bigotry is the source of a lot of laughs… which is somewhat problematic honestly, I think Eastwood was trying to diffuse a situation somewhat, and he is just as short with other people, it’s just not nearly as shocking. When he first “defends” the neighbours from gang members, it’s not a matter of protecting them, but his inherent dislike for delinquency especially in what he sees as a corruption of his world and it’s “rules”.

I think as the film opens up, what he comes to respect and see in the Hmong culture is the importance of family and community. It’s what is lacking in his own family, though in large part to his own actions… but there is something very appealing to him that a family would behave and interact as an entity, and obey similar rules that he values. They also respect him for his actions and sacrifice, perhaps not for his involvement in serving his country, but certainly for being a protector. It’s the thanks he has always desired from his own family. As a result, he becomes something like a member of their family, especially towards their son Thao. Their relationship starts on the wrong foot, as the young Thao attempts to steal Walt’s Gran Torino, so that he may be a member of his gang. Though, because of having strong values of his parents who force him to work off his debt. He is forced to regain his respect, and he proves to be a young man with a strong sense of duty and responsibility, something that Walt can respect.

Once the strong relationship between Walt and his adopted family is adopted, the film takes a shift. It focuses on crime, and gang violence, and how the American dream has been perverted (assuming it was every pure). Crime is not only the easy way out, but it’s what tears down those who try to make something for themselves through their hard work and morality. This film reveals a new side of authority, essentially revealing the ineffectiveness of the legal system in protecting the community. People distrust the police, because of a plethora of reasons, some covered in the film, others simply implied. This idea is explored thoroughly in most of Eastwood’s work, men taking the law into their own hands in face of an ineffective system. I’d argue it’s a theme that warrants the discussion of auteurism in context of Eastwood’s filmography, especially in how it has evolved throughout the years. Though somewhat predictable, Walt’s act of “vigilantism”, is the anti-thesis of the act itself. After films like Mystic River and Unforgiven, that highlight the dark side of vigilante justice, this film is an interesting change of pace. Though, like those films, it highlights the sacrifice needed to make society and communities a better place, albeit taken to life or death extremes.

7. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen)

What I think I love about Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is how much I see myself in the characters, and the fact that the omnipotent narrator is so disparaging about their existence. Something about that is comforting, having someone who sees all, who can objectively look at my life and my problems and be able to say with authority that my worries and concerns are ridiculous, if not downright comical. Perhaps I’m alone in enjoying being belittled, but I do.

On one hand, I’m like Cristina, aimless and impulsive. There is a flightiness to her, the desire to be something she isn’t. She wants to be an artist, but doesn’t have the talent (at least it’s not immediately evident), so she associates with people who are not only more talented than she is, but also far more interesting in the hopes that it rubs off on her.

Vicky, on the other hand, is rational to a tee. She is living the life she wants, and doesn’t take risks, and has no doubts… at least not until she meets Juan Antonio, an artist. His brash lust, and one night of passion, changes of her life forever… but it also doesn’t change anything at all. It makes her question everything she believed in, and watches the established norms and relationships around her dissolve. Though, unlike the films we’ve come to love and appreciate, she doesn’t take action, at least she doesn’t follow through with it. She allows the possibilities of a different life haunt her, and the fact that she is unhappy with her own is not enough to drive her for real change.

I think that’s what I like about the film, both characters leave for Barcelona as one person, and come back very much the same. Perhaps they’re perspective on the world and even themselves have been altered, but at the core, they’re returning to the same empty aimlessness and the same unhappy security.

Why do I find this film comforting again? I’m not sure really, it’s the idea that everyone’s life is meaningless and therefore, so important. That it takes real courage to change your situation, if it’s even possible. It’s even about finding happiness, or at least satisfaction, in the mundane. I think this all seems bearable and even charming, by virtue of the fact that it is all dealt with a very dark and dry sense of humour.

6. Che (Soderbergh)

The first film in Soderberg’s Che explores Che Guevera as a guerrilla in Cuba, leading the revolution. It’s matched against his visit to New York in 1964, where he conducts several interviews and speaks before the UN. This film is bombastic, colourful and stylish. It seems inspired in part by cinema of the 60s, especially documentaries. It is raw, though still stands back, allowing the audience to cast judgment instead of the lens. The film is very much involved with Che himself, and as many of the film’s detractor’s note, it sidetracks many of the terrible things he does. It shows a country prepared for revolution, almost begging for it. How it was more than his power as a leader (and of course Castro’s) that brought a revolution, but luck and opportunity. The film really shows the desperation of the situation, as well as the strengths in Guevera’s attitudes. These seem to mostly stem, however, from it’s inexperience and naivity. The film ends shortly before Castro takes power.

The second part of the film is even more interesting; it is set several years later when Che Guevera is now in Bolivia trying to establish a revolution. It’s more grim in style and content, as Guevera is seen as a much older man. He is not seen as someone jaded by power, if anything he’s willing to give it up more than one would expect from a man in his position. He is driven and believe’s heavily in his cause. He is jaded though, in his approach to the revolution, and one seems him often contradicting his statements made in this and the other film. He himself is no longer as driven, and age has taken it’s course, and he is also physically weaker. This film is not as linear as the previous, and has some very strikingly abstract imagery. Soderbergh is unafraid of juxtaposition, using it to great effect in this case, without ever really being too obvious. This film reveals how circumstantial the Cuban revolution was, and how Bolivia was not the same. It also reveals the sad truth that though “for the people”, the greatest victims of revolution were rarely the soldiers or intellectuals, but the very peasants that were being protected. Though from mostly anecdotal mentions and hints, we are revealed a darker side to even the Cuban revolution, and the film portrays Che as being still inspirational in that he is the symbol of change, but being a far weaker, even pathetic figure shooting for something that is unattainable. The disjointed and episodic nature of the film reflects beautifully the journey and the aimlessness of the revolution, as well as how far Che Guevera has drifted. Though most of his brutality and crimes against humanity are still kept to the hidelines, his indifference to them, as well as the consequencs on the survivors is references in brief but palpable moments.

5. The Wrestler (Aronofsky)

In The Wrestler, Randy the “Ram” is a former Wrestling superstar who lives in a trailer park and makes his money off of weekend shows. He is a fallen star of yesteryear but instead of harping on a man attempting to recapture his glory days, Darren Aronofsky reveals an often bittersweet tale of a man who does not know how to live. There is a great emphasis on the Ram’s body, how it endures, and eventually breaks down. His tolerance for pain seems both astronomical and careless, his eventual physical demise is not surprising. What is truly heartbreaking, and what makes this film so personal, is the fact that while Randy can handle and rationalize his physical torment, any sort of emotional pain is unbearable for him. Wrestling is his escape from the responsibilities of being a loving human being, and his attempts to reconcile with his daughter, is ruined by his own subconscious sabotage.

His story is mirrored by that of Cassidy, a stripper who is past her prime. Both of their careers are tied to their bodies, and how they effectively sell them to make a living. Normal society looks down upon both of their careers, though for different reasons, and both characters struggle with the isolation and rigid expectations that come with it. Cassidy, however, is able to live beyond her career, and is a loving mother. In separating her job from her personal life, she is able to handle the real world with far more rationality than Ram. Though obviously pained by the idea that her body is no longer a feasible means of gaining a living, she has another life waiting for her, one that she is ready to embrace. This parallel also reveals gender issues relating to the human body, how Cassidy’s career is cut short earlier than Ram’s, and the derogatory nature of some of the patrons. The fact that her career is also based on selling sex, while Ram’s on violence, is also very revealing.

“Above all else, what makes The Wrestler such a poignant film is the sincere portrait of characters not unlike ourselves, people who are lonely and lost, searching for acceptance and love, but never quite sure how to act and react to the world around them.

4. Milk (Gus Van Sant)

Last year, Todd Haynes re-invented the biopic with his exciting film I’m Not There. This year, Gus Van Sant, on of America’s most experimental filmmaker, returns to a more traditional form… he invigorates a tired model with enthusiasm and passion, and a touch of experimentation, to create a truly remarkable about Harvey Milk.

The film paints a thrilling and intimate portrait of Harvey Milk’s political career. The film doesn’t get tied down by events though, and it’s episodic nature is scattered with intimate and personal moments. It’s less a showcase of his great achievements, than a progression of his emotional and political nature. It paints the portrait of a man who dares to make a difference, giving a voice to a fraction of the population that not only were without representation, but looked down upon as sinful and “wrong”.

Personally, the most thrilling part of the film emotionally and politically comes with Milk’s interaction with Dan White. It reveals both the darker side of politics, and the shades of grey that Sant gives to his portrait. White, brought to life by Brolin, is a man representing more traditional ideals. Though at first he doesn’t seem threatened by Milk’s sexuality, the layers begin to unravel as it becomes clear that White is not only unwilling to acknowledge change, but fails to understand how politics work. Sant’s lens seems to revere White, almost painting him as a confused adolescent lost in a world he cannot understand. I’m surprised this doesn’t undermine the film, instead it offers sensitive understanding of someone who loses everything and makes a terrible, if not desperate, action… for him, everything is lost.

What I think works so wonderfully for this film, is that though the film ends in the death of Milk, it also offers a huge amount of hope. It makes a point in saying, the politics and the message do not end with Harvey Milk.

3. Un Conte de Noel (Arnaud Desplechin)

Un Conte de Noel is one of those films that I saw on a whim, a wild impulse, only to be bowled over by it’s wild emotion and scope that seems to extend a lifetime. In just two and a half hours, I feel as though I’ve come to know an entire family, and part of that is not always understanding why they act the way they do. Usually with films about unresolved conflicts and tension, something is well.. resolved, but we are not always given answers here, except when we didn’t even know there were questions.

The Vuillard family is inexplicably neurotic, plagued by self-abuse, feuds, and physical illness. Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is the family’s matriarch, who has been diagnosed with a degenerate cancer, her only hope is a bone marrow transplant, but her genetic make-up is especially rare so there is little hope. Her family is tested in hopes of finding a match, and somehow her physical tragedy brings everyone together for what may be one last Christmas. This includes, the once estranged middle child, Henri, who was “exiled” by his own sister years before, his sister’s psychologically disturbed child, and a cousin mourning his lust for a relative’s wife.

The film never falls too deeply into the multiple neurosis of the characters, and though I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with melodrama, it avoids it’s pitfalls as well. It’s an incredibly well crafted story, balancing not only a huge cast of characters, but a great range of themes, ideas and emotions. It’s quite overwhelming, and I can’t imagine quite getting a hold on many of the film’s intricacies without having seen it a few more times.

There are many points to touch on, and there isn’t a single storyline that I don’t find thrilling or completely engrossing. There are three in particular that stand out for me though. The first is the middle son’s story, Henri (brought to life by the always consistent, Mathieu Amalric). He never seemed to have been given a fair shake, born not even by accident, but out of necessity to treat an older brother who was diagnosed with cancer. It reminds me, at least indirectly, to the worst novel I ever read My Sister’s Keeper that in the span of several hundred pages, does not approach the breadth of the effects it has on Henri long into adulthood. He isn’t damaged… at least not necessarily more so than the rest of his family, but there is a certain air of detachment, and even resentment that he feels towards his parents, especially his mother. His every move, action and behavior almost seems tied to him being unwanted, and is further alienated by his abrasive nature, and the death of his first wife. He seems to be the key to understanding the entire family, he’s the outsider, the one who has been banished…and is finally brought back at a time of great need.

Next up is the nephew, a teenage boy who as the film begins, has a nervous breakdown. He’s neither precautions, not apparently angsty or angry. Like his uncle, he seems doomed by circumstance. Born into melancholy, and his constant desire for meaning and love were the only moments that brought tears to my eyes. There is a moment he gives a speech to his mother, where he apologizes for being a failure. It’s been done a million and one times, but there was not only so much sincerity and conviction, but the mother’s numb reaction. She assures him she loves him for who he is, and I believe her… but it’s typically cold. His attachment to his uncles, one of which he last saw when he was 3, is heartbreaking. Henri’s constant dismissal and belittling of him to his face, and behind his back is difficult to watch sometimes. It’s clear he’s not lashing out at the boy because he ever did anything to him, but more as a demonstration of self-hatred. It doesn’t justify his actions, but the beauty of the film is, it never feels the need to justify or explain his behavior.

Third is Sylvia, the youngest son’s wife. Through a series of events, she comes to the startlingly realization that her life is not her own, and her foundation was built on a decision she didn’t even know occurred. It radically changed her world view, and moves her to do what she wouldn’t have considered just days before. Her husband’s reaction, and acceptance of this is more than just a twist or defying our expectations, it works organically with who these people are and evolve over the course of the few days. The happiness she finds, and the passion that is ignited is extremely raw and it feels… for lack of a better word, right.

I’ve only touched the surface of the film, ignoring almost entirely the exciting craft and technique used to bring the story together. My favourite unexpected touch being the use of shadow puppets to tell the family’s back story. Little touches like this are sparkled throughout, never allowed to dominate the characters or events taking place.

2. The Class (Laurent Cantet)

I’ve been struggling to write this for the past two days, something about it is elusive, my experience still fresh… and my memory still harping on how visceral my reaction was. This is a film that surprised me on all counts, the trailers betray the true anarchy of the situation and the depth of it’s insight. This film works as a microcosm for society and education, asking questions like should we help someone who doesn’t want to be helped? Is the greater good more important than the individual? At what point do we need to re-evaluate the system if just one child is let slip through the cracks? Told as mostly episodic vignettes, the film explores the interactions between teacher and student in a world changed by globalization. It’s characters are real and exciting, and you get a real understanding of even the most minor characters. Dare I say, this might be the best film about education and teaching I’ve seen?

1. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)

I had unfortunately missed this at Montreal’s own Fantasia film festival, where several of my friends declared it one of the year’s more interesting films. They weren’t kidding, and the word of mouth must have got around, because it’s not everyday you see a full house (even on cheapo Tuesday) at the AMC Forum. The last time I remember being at a full house at the Forum (that wasn’t a pixar) was back in 2006, when I saw The New World, and by the end of the film, more than half the patrons had walked out! I think this was a case of misled audience than anything else though, I remember the trailers for the film playing up the war element, and ignoring Malick’s signature and sometimes difficult style. No one walked out of Let the Right One In though, there wasn’t even that uncomfortable restlessness that most films seem to insight in their audience; there was just quiet (except the one cell phone that went off).

Let the Right One in is one of the more compelling entries in the vampire mythos in a while, using the pretence of fantasy to explore relationships, morbidity, and aggression. The film is purposefully ambiguous and a slackened pace allows for more focus on the budding friendship between the protagonist and the young vampire who moves in next door. There intimacy is startling, in some ways off-putting because of their youth, and though their relationship remains chaste, there is an undeniable sexual frustration that seems to manifest itself through bloodshed. Both have a need for violence, one as a means of survival, the other out of desire for revenge. The bullying the protagonist suffers in a way, is what softens him for being understanding towards Eli. His desire for a friend and his quietness perfect for her, and his incredible anger, allows him to be all the more sympathetic to her situation. When, and if, he’s disgusted by her nature, it’s short lived. If anything, she opens her eyes to the true brutality of his desires; the reality of violence and death. It frightens him, but there is also a strange sense that his desires are justified. Eli seems to say at one point, that her murders are motivated only by need, and implies, somehow, without judging that his are not quite “right”. Though, she urges him to act back, a tooth for tooth, and promises that if that doesn’t stop them, she will help. At this point, he is completely unaware what she is truly capable of. Even though Eli is much older than she looks, she seems to hold the same naïve and innocent understanding of justice as Oskar. Making the eventual “settling of the score”, disturbing rather than vindicating.

The nature of the friendship between Oskar and Eli seems to be pushing towards a sort of taboo, using one character who is just on the brink of a sexual awakening, with another who, though “twelve”, has clearly been initiated or initiating sexual relationships. I don’t want to spoil a moment, but there is a particular scene, it’s even more of a shot, that is mysterious and ambiguous that opens more questions than it answers. I’ve discussed it with Polar Bear, who has kindly revealed the “meaning” ,at least in part , of this moment, but again, it serves only to open up an entirely new set of questions regarding sex and Eli’s past. The film is purposefully ambiguous and cryptic, and though many films fall into the traps of becoming too muddle and biting off more than they can chew, somehow this film succeeds at being simply piercing, for lack of a better word.

Though the film works less for traditional scares and suspense, there is enough disturbing and unexpected material to make the audience jump. Most are, as I mentioned earlier, because of a sort of twisted innocence and it’s inevitable cruelty. The violence and the gore is often painful, though there is often a lack of empathy for the victims. We are hit by the terror of their death, but there is little concern for their body, or inevitable death. It’s moments like when Oskar is beaten with a switch, or Eli “bleeds” that are the most painful emotionally and viscerally. Oskar’s obsession with murder and violence, seems to me, to be a reflection on his alienation and loneliness. Perhaps I’m drawing parallels that are not there, but it makes me think of the unfortunate rise in school shootings in Scandinavian countries in the past few years. I don’t think there is an attempt to rationalize or point fingers, but reveals an uncomfortable malaise in youth, and a detached adult populace who is unaware and ignorant of the lives of their children. They fail to see what is right in front of them, unable to discern the budding violence and aggression, blind to bullying and unable to tell truth from lie. This disconnect seems to make the bond Eli and Oskar have seem even stronger.

Winding down my thoughts, I’m partial to winter as the setting for horror or films exploring issues of intimacy and human “coldness”. It’s probably why Black Christmas is my favorite horror, and it certainly works in this film’s favour. It’s a film that gets better the more I think about it, and leaves me aching to see it again.

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3 responses to “2008 in Review.

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